Some folks get all the glory. In the case of production and costume designers, that glory generally emanates from period films — where splendid locations, elaborate clothes and sumptuous furnishings not only wow paying audiences, but often awards voters as well.
These are the works that boast the obvious earmarks of painstaking research and considerable expense. But the work that goes into creating a less ostentatious mise en scene is equally painstaking, creating designs that the untrained eye may regard as no design at all.
Take “Transamerica,” in which Felicity Huffman plays a man about to enter the final phase of sexual-reassignment surgery who learns he has an aimless teenage son named Toby. “Toby was pretty tough to figure out,” says Costume Designers Guild nominee Danny Glicker, “because (actor Kevin Zegers) was cast against type; Toby wasn’t supposed to be that gorgeous.”
To help viewers look past Zegers’ heartthrob appeal, Glicker banned “certain cliches” from the film, including tank tops and hooded sweatshirts. “I think we would all be better off if we never saw a hustler in a movie wear those clothes again,” says the designer. “He’s still very childlike in a lot of the worst possible ways,” he says. “So it really helped to put him in passe T-shirts with images like Dungeons and Dragons and aliens. It was tough to find those things now, but it really worked, because anything else on Kevin looked way too cool and way too hot.”
Judy Becker, production designer on “Brokeback Mountain,” shares Glicker’s views. “My philosophy in general is that the design should support the story and the characters and not the other way around,” she says.
In “Brokeback,” Becker aimed for quiet naturalism. “I hope that the movie looked under-designed,” she says. “But so much thought went into every detail on the screen.” For example, she points to the movie’s final scene, which takes place in the trailer of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger). “We reconstructed both the interior and exterior,” she says. “The closet door had to open in a certain way and hit a window, and I remember having to measure the distance of the door to make it work.”
Just as something like Toby’s T-shirt is revealing about his character, the locations and props — even when quotidian — can subtly inform viewers, lending texture and depth to the work of actors and directors.
In “Proof,” brilliant but unstable Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow) is either making Nobel Prize-worthy math discoveries or going mad — she has conversations with her dead, mentally ill father, Robert (Anthony Hopkins). Conveying that complexity was a prime goal of “Proof’s” design team, led by Alice Normington.
“Her concept was of a house that had belonged to a methodically ordered mind gone into decline,” says Keith Slote, the film’s art director. “She wanted strong geometric patterns to echo a fascination with mathematics. The fabrics, leaded windows, floor tiles, light fixtures, all had a fractured geometry.
“(Normington) kept tight control of the color palette, mostly using muted greens and browns, nothing loud. We also gently aged everything: rugs frayed, woodwork dulled and chipped, wallpaper washed down, but nothing too over the top. Then everything was overlain with papers, books, unwashed dishes, the detritus of life, all reflecting Robert’s descent into madness.”
A similar, though distinctive, approach surfaced in “The Squid and the Whale,” in which the home of supercilious writer Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels) was meant to convey his inner turmoil. “It was definitely supposed to be distressed,” says art director Jennifer Dehghan. For inspiration, the film’s designers used a Lucien Freud painting. “The colors we used — shades of gray and beige and weak, dull greens and yellows — were supposed to convey a dying plant. And we distressed the wallpaper, to make it look as though it was crumbling from within.”
But it’s not always character development that drives design choices when contemporary milieus are depicted. Sometimes, it’s a question of creating a world that will resonate as “real” for filmgoers.
“You’re always looking for some way of clarifying things for the audience,” says Odile Dicks-Mireaux, costume designer of “The Constant Gardener.”
She mentions the subtle art of finding just the right business suit for a starry cast playing unglamorous diplomats. “It was more difficult than anticipated getting the truth out of these clothes,” she says. “They had to have this invisibility. So I had to go against my instincts to make the actors look wonderful. I couldn’t always say, ‘You look gorgeous.’ “